All about technology and forces shaping the energy transition in shipping

3 A’s for maritime decarbonisation … it’s time to bake!

February 16, 2023

Until recently, I had the privilege of working for a company that has pushed the limits of European inland shipping by going beyond mere feasibility studies and embarking on the journey to build a fleet of zero-emissions vessels. I have spent these last 6+ years steeped in all things shipping and decarbonisation. As I set my sights on the future, and work on finding a new path to contributing to large-scale positive climate impact, I have tried to distil my learnings into a framework for what I think is needed to supercharge shipping’s energy transition, or that of any other hard-to-abate sector for that matter. This will guide my own choice of what I dedicate the next decade of my life to and how. I hope that it will give you something to chew on or inspire you to share your own perspectives.

Ambition

Whether it is because we are caught up in the vagaries of everyday life, or because we pride ourselves on being modest, we don’t often dare to dream big and consider the possibility that crazy, audacious goals can propel us much further than modest ambitions. You know what they say — fortune favours the bold. We begin to think in possibilities and constantly look for opportunities when we believe that the sky is the limit, instead of making peace with the suboptimal.

What might inspire you to take up baking? The hope that you can recreate your grandma’s scrumptious chocolate cake one day, or the need for some bread for tomorrow’s lunch?

SpaceEx created reusable rockets and changed the face of space exploration. Would they have accomplished that if their dot on the horizon had been ‘make a better rocket’ instead of ‘colonise Mars’?

Action

Flour sold out very quickly in grocery stores across Europe during Covid because many of us picked up a new hobby — yes, you guessed right, baking. Accomplished bakers will tell you that it is ‘a science, not an art; it requires precision and planning’. So when we started baking, we looked up recipes, found the right tools, and researched and purchased the appropriate ingredients. All the preparations helped a lot — to a certain extent. Beyond that, they only delayed learning. At some point, you had to actually bake to figure out if your recipe, technique and ingredients worked. When I made carrot cake for the first time, it turned into a smoky carrot biscuit that I bravely ate because curiosity got the better of me.

When we put a novel technology on board a ship or in port environments, it is not going to work seamlessly right off the bat. It will take tinkering, adapting, and optimising. Several iterations will be required to build these to top-notch operational and safety standards. We have completed several feasibility studies, tested technologies in labs and conducted numerous cost calculations. It is now time to put technologies on vessels and test them out in maritime environments — whatever your technology of choice, and whatever the scale that fits your budget. We need to give ourselves time for the learning curve that we often tend to forget.

Assimilation

There is an upside to not getting something right — if you learn from it, try to figure out what went wrong, and do things differently the next time around. I learnt from the charred carrot-biscuit fiasco, and tweaked things around for the next attempt. It took a few more tries to get to cake, but I got there.

Introducing a novel technology into the maritime environment is obviously no piece of cake. But if it takes a couple of attempts to even get cake right, we are going to need to work on at least several hundred projects at different scales, and learn from them, to decarbonise the entire maritime ecosystem. The learnings from these projects need to be shared in both structured and unstructured ways through formal and informal channels to kick-off the virtuous cycle that will rev-up shipping’s energy transition.

You might have other things to add; behaviour change and collaboration are probably top of that list. In my book, they perfectly bolster the 3 A’s, and will only help us get to the goal faster. To create meaningful difference within a consequential timeframe, we have no choice but to aim high, act fast and learn rapidly from our failures. And repeat.

My next three blog posts will unpack each of the 3 A’s further and explore ideas and examples that I find inspiring. Stay tuned!

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